PhD success for autistic Stonehaven resident

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A local man with autism has proven his doubters wrong after he graduated with a PhD last week.

When he was younger, it was expected that Dr James Cusack would never go to university, and at one point it was anticipated that he would need residential support later in life for his individual needs.

The 27-year-old Stonehaven man was only diagnosed with autism at the age of 12 and at this time there was not the awareness that there is today of the condition.

However it has not prevented James excelling in higher education and it actually fuelled much of his research meaning he graduated on Friday from the University of Aberdeen with a PhD.

James attended the Aberdeen’s specialist Raeden Centre for a year when he was a toddler and said: “People knew there was something not quite right and I knew myself I was different from other kids.

“I was slow to make eye contact, had poor motor skills, needed speech therapy and was slow to acquire language.”

Despite his early difficulties James attended mainstream primary school. But it was a difficult experience which only worsened when he attended secondary, where he suffered from depression.

James said:“I was finally diagnosed with autism in the summer before I started secondary school and it just felt like really bad news.

“Everything fell to bits when I went to the academy and it was expected that I would need to be fully supported for the rest of my life.

“University was not thought to be a realistic option for me but I think we were all surprised when I got straight ones in my Standard Grades.”

James then left with four Highers and opted to do his undergraduate degree in Psychology at Aberdeen where in his first few days, he met his wife-to-be Jenny Kettles, who was studying medicine at the time and now lives with James in Stonehaven.

During his undergraduate studies James became involved in autism research already underway at the University, which he continued to develop for his PhD which was on human action perception in autism.

The 27-year-old has also been involved in raising awareness in schools of autism and was also heavily involved in a campaign which led to the Scottish Government unveiling Scotland’s first ever “autism strategy”.

The Stonehaven resident, who also spent time as a summer intern at the University of Oxford during his studies at Aberdeen, now has a Research Fellow post within the University’s psychiatry group within the division of applied medicine.

Working in the Northern Temperament programme, James will study the expression of emotion with a view to understanding cultural variations and a range of psychiatric disorders.

James added: “Autism varies across the spectrum so I’m not saying everyone with the condition could go to university, however I do believe that if you get all the help and support that you require you can achieve things that you might never have believed possible.”